The new community development director for Niagara Falls is getting ready to unveil an ambitious program designed to attract recent college graduates to live in targeted downtown neighborhoods by providing them up to $291 a month over two years to help them pay their monthly student loan debt.
Seth Piccirillo, 30, who was appointed in April by Mayor Paul Dyster to lead community development efforts, tells the Niagara Reporter that the city needs to grow its population to retain its city status in the 2020 census and he believes using $200,000 in federal aid to establish the incentive program will be an important element in that effort.
“We need to get the people we don’t have right now,” said Piccirillo, a Niagara Falls native, during a recent interview. “We don’t have the college graduate, young professional demographic right now and what we need is a strategy to get them here.”
Piccirillo, who most recently worked as manager of government affairs for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, is charged with overseeing close to $3 million in HUD aid to the city and he thinks the city needs more than demolitions and home rehabilitations to bring back neighborhoods.
In an internal memo to Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, a copy of which was obtained by the Reporter, Piccirillo outlined his College Graduate Incentive Program, stating that attracting young professionals and their discretionary income is key to any city’s success and failure as a living destination.
“There is a lack of viable entry points for new residents,” Piccirillo wrote in the memo, “and the city does not competitively attract young professionals and recent college graduates to live within its boundaries….and without a strategy to attract this target market, the City of Niagara Falls will never transition from a post-industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy.”
Piccirillo said the new culinary institute and other higher-education institutions like Niagara University will provide a ready-market of students carrying heavy college loan debt, “and we have to build neighborhoods that attract them here.”
As for government’s role in helping to create safe, historical, and aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods, Piccirillo said “any interesting neighborhood in this country that is full of commercial opportunity and people living in it was a created neighborhood at some point.” He cited the heavy government involvement in the Elmwood Village success story in Buffalo as an example and he noted that it didn’t happen overnight.
“They have the young people there [Elmwood Village] and they have the target market that we want,” said Piccirillo. “And they are spending money.”
In emphasizing why he thinks the program will work, Piccirillo notes that college graduate debt is at an all-time high at one trillion dollars, higher than all other consumer debt, and that college seniors with loans in 2010 owed an average of $25,250, up five percent from 2009.
The city’s new incentive program would reimburse students up to $291 per month for two years, not exceeding $3,492 a year and $6,984 during the full term of the agreement. The payment would be made directly to the student during his/her annual certification with Community Development and would also require proof of good standing with the loaning agency and the landlord or mortgage agency. Applicants must have graduated from an accredited institute for higher education with a two-year technical degree (or greater) within 24 months of applying for the program. Also eligible would be students who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree within 36 months and are enrolled to pursue a state-recognized post-graduate degree at the time of application.
The target area, according to the memo, would be the USA Niagara Development District including all of Third St. to Cedar Ave. ; Fourth St., between Cedar and Main; Cedar, between Third and Main; Park Place, between Cedar and Main, and Pine Ave. between Third and Main .
Landlords would also be required to meet certain criteria including maintenance and inspections, and the administrative costs to Community Development would total $60,320 over two years.
Piccirillo said it is not easy to address the mistakes of the past but it is now time to develop strategies for the future involving government, universities, community colleges, and private business.
“I am going to take every available resource and tool [available], whether it is government or non-government, to redevelop neighborhoods,” said Piccirillo. “If we don’t, we will not survive.”